The future of crude oil is dubious when one considers the problem of global warming and the rise of renewable energy, but it does not have to be that way. To understand the final destiny of oil, let us take a look at the place where the road starts. This is the first of a series of articles that suggests a viable option for oil
When crude oil enters a refinery, the first thing it sees is an atmospheric crude distillation tower. The column basically operates at atmospheric pressure. It is fundamentally the same as distilling ethanol in a homemade apparatus – the volatile ethanol is taken off the top as gas while the less volatile water is left behind. It is difficult to get 100% ethanol so we usually settle for 180 proof. The same can pretty much be said for crude oil.
The top vapors in an atmospheric tower are methane, ethane, and something called naphtha. The bottom stream is what we typically refer to as asphalt. There is other stuff in between these two extremes – more on that later. For the most part, naphtha is what a refiner really wants because that is the main material from which gasoline is made.
The naphtha consists of hydrocarbons containing 4 to 10 carbon atoms. These molecules are reformed, isomerized, into branched chain hydrocarbons; and also cracked, broken, into smaller molecules. Naphtha is then blended with other components and gasoline is made.
The question is, when renewables start to take over the energy market, what is to be done with all of this naphtha? Granted naphtha can be used for making polymers, polyolefins; but so can many other things like methane, ethane, propane, liquified petroleum gas, and raffinate. These alternatives are also the products of crude oil. This series hopes to shine some light on a viable alternative.